Dig, Don’t Bury

Posted by Rob Mahoney on September 9, 2010 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2010-09-08 at 3.46.42 PM

The Mavericks waited. They waited by the phone for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson to return their calls, but those stars never did. Meanwhile, Erick Dampier sat, gift-wrapped in festive paper and topped with a bow, waiting for the bounty he would never fetch.

This wasn’t the way the summer was supposed to go. The return on Dampier’s instantly expiring contract wasn’t supposed to be Tyson Chandler, but it was and here we are. The Mavericks waited (as if they had any other option), and as a reward for that waiting, they scored a center that may not be any better than Erick Dampier at all. Chandler is quite useful, but so, too was Dampier. Both are likely best served as reserve centers, and with the Mavs, either would be. Their offensive skills are comparable, and their defensive competence similar.

I say all of this in light of Brett Hainline’s recent piece over at Queen City Hoops, which detailed how losing Chandler might impact the Charlotte Bobcats’ defense next season. Charlotte just so happened to boast the NBA’s top defense in ’09-’10, but expecting them to repeat in that capacity would be foolish. For one, the Cats lost Raymond Felton, a strong and relentless perimeter defender. Additionally, Charlotte has now lost Chandler, a move which Hainline argues could be catastrophic to the Bobcats’ defensive effectiveness.

However, that claim says more about the center crop in Charlotte than it does about Chandler’s ability to stand out on defense. The Bobcats will likely fall off defensively in the coming year, but that’s largely because Nazr Mohammed, Kwame Brown, and Boris Diaw will be forced to fill the minutes in the middle. Losing Chandler hurts, but filling his minutes with that crew hurts more.

In terms of defensive efficiency, Hainline found that the lineup featuring Tyson Chandler and the other starter mainstays (Felton, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Diaw) performed 10 points per 100 possessions better than the same lineup but with Nazr Mohammed substituted for Chandler. Believe it. Mohammed is also plenty useful as a player, and he’s not a horrible defender. He just doesn’t operate with the same effectiveness in the Bobcats’ system.

However, though the Chandler-infused starting unit’s mark of 99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions is commendable, Dallas did one better, despite only having the 12th best defense overall last season. When Erick Dampier played with the Mavericks’ starters (Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, and Dirk Nowitzki), Dallas allowed just 89 points per 100 possessions. Then, with the Mavs’ other “starting” lineup (Kidd, Jason Terry, Marion, and Nowitzki) last season, Dallas allowed just 95 points per 100 possessions. Those are two exemplary defensive lineups that Dampier was able to anchor, and while the sample size for the former is a bit small (Butler only played in 27 regular season games for the Mavs last season, after all) the defensive numbers for the latter held through extended minutes (it was the Mavs’ most-played lineup last season).

If that’s the criterion by which we evaluate either player’s defensive success, Dampier was at least Chandler’s defensive equal. In fact, if we use Hainline’s player swap tool, his system puts the Mavs at 1.9 fewer Pythagorean wins with Chandler than with Dampier based on both players’ offensive and defensive impact from last season:

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However, a look into each player’s individual defense does reveal a few interesting discrepancies. Take a look at how Chandler, Dampier, and Brendan Haywood each performed last season in various defensive capacities (on a points allowed per possession basis), courtesy of Synergy Sports:

PlayerOverall Defense (PPP)Post-Up (PPP)PnR Roll Man (PPP)
Tyson Chandler0.850.800.52
Erick Dampier0.890.820.89
Brendan Haywood0.890.900.73

Data from Synergy Sports Technology.

By these measures, Chandler is actually a slight improvement over Dampier, and a far better pick-and-roll defender. In my initial analysis of the Dampier trade, I noted that although Chandler may not be supremely talented, there is value in variety. Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are similar defenders, while Chandler, empirically speaking, separates himself with his defense of the pick-and-roll. That’s why even though the Mavs didn’t make any significant personnel upgrades, their D could still improve in the coming season.

Or, if you’ve been watching Chandler’s defensive exploits (or is it exploitation?) with Team USA, you may think otherwise. Consider this: Chandler is moving better after recovering from injury, and that matters. His coverage of the pick-and-roll hasn’t been very good, and that matters too, but far less. You can’t expect the members of a team assembled in a matter of weeks with extremely limited practice time to execute quality pick-and-roll defense, especially against the experienced practitioners working the ball for other national teams. He’ll be fine when he returns to the more consistent NBA life, and Dallas should be better at defending ball screens.

My fear is that Chandler’s possible success in Dallas will somehow be viewed as one in the same with Dampier’s alleged failure. Damp’s contract has made him an easy scapegoat for Mavs fans over the years, and I’d be the first to tell you that he doesn’t deserve that many shekels. However, I draw that line at blaming Dampier for the Mavs’ defensive troubles. I’m not sure that Dampier is an ideal fit with this team any longer, but he’s still a good center who did what was asked of him. He set screens. He grabbed boards. He defended well in the post. That’s what the Mavericks (over)paid him to do, and should the team take any kind of step forward in ’10-’11, it won’t be because the team shed themselves of some Dampier-shaped burden. Acquiring Chandler is a touch of a stylistic shift, and that’s the change that gives Dallas the potential to improve.

Fortifications

Posted by Rob Mahoney on July 19, 2010 under Commentary, Roster Moves | 3 Comments to Read


In trading Erick Dampier for Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks made the right move because they could’ve made the wrong one, but they made the wrong move because they couldn’t make the right one. If you couldn’t tell, evaluating Dallas’ big off-season trade is a tad tricky. After all, this wasn’t just any swap. The Mavs had one of the most valuable trade chips in the league and had touted it as such while embracing the accompanying expectations. When a hungry fan base (and the team itself, for that matter) has guys like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James dangled overhead, they’re not likely to be satiated by the second best center on the Charlotte Bobcats.

That’s exactly what Tyson Chandler was last season. While he may be a starting-caliber player in name, the Bobcats’ top center in ’09-’10 was Nazr Mohammed. Nazr averaged 16.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, and the only real flaw in his campaign was that he didn’t see the floor more. That’s a better scoring season than Chandler has ever put together (Tyson’s single season high for PP36? 13.6, in ’02-’03). Mohammed may be a bit flawed as a defender and rebounder, but his competence in those areas in addition to his scoring made him the strongest 5 for Charlotte last season, even if Chandler’s injury prevented him from putting up a fair fight.

So the Mavs traded an incredibly attractive asset for the second best center on the 7th best team in the Eastern Conference…and for the license to dump the contracts of Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera. That’s a noticeably slimmer return than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or even Al Jefferson, for that matter. In somewhat fitting fashion, Erick Dampier’s parting gift to the Mavs is solid, but weighed down by the power of expectation. Just as a competent starting center seemed ridiculous when he had a $13 million price tag hanging around his neck, acquiring Tyson Chandler is a sad consolation prize when evaluated in the shadow of what could have been.

However, if we zoom out to get a slightly broader view, the Mavs did what they could. They tried to lure LeBron James. They reportedly met with Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson. They talked with the Minnesota Timberwolves about Al Jefferson, but decided that he wasn’t worth surrendering Dampier and multiple first rounders. None of those deals went through, so Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban moved further down their list of targets. The Mavs were prepared for this, it’s just unfortunate that they had to be.

So instead of picking up another star, Dallas will add a backup center. It fills a definite need. Ian Mahinmi isn’t ready to be that high on the depth chart just yet, so acquiring another 5 equipped to finish and defend was a must for the Mavs. Chandler can do a bit of both, but he is in no way the player that terrorized the Mavs in the 2008 playoffs. That Tyson Chandler is long gone, and in his place is a defending big clearly in decline.


Tyson is still a quality post defender, but he’s somehow even worse offensively now than he was with the Hornets. Fans frustrated by Erick Dampier’s inability to convert buckets around the rim are about to enter a whole new world of facepalming with Chandler. Damp may not have much touch around the rim, but Tyson struggles to complete anything that isn’t an easy dunk. I wish this were hyperbole. Chandler does have better hands than Dampier, which makes him a more viable option for easy finishes, but anyone hoping for an offensive upgrade is in for a hilarious surprise.

Defensively, Chandler can still hold his own. He’s frequently overrated as a shot-blocker, but Tyson is still a solid defensive option for guarding back-to-the-basket bigs. Chandler does struggle against some face-up threats, as the impact of his height and length is hedged by his injuries and an uncanny tendency to bite on pump fakes. However, if you put Chandler in off-ball situations (like, say, defending the pick and roll) that require a different kind of defensive read, he seems to perform fairly well. Tyson’s a smart defender, even if he is an impatient one.

Sounds good, right? Having two centers capable of making an impact on the defensive end is an incredible luxury, but I’d be remiss not to mention one minor detail: the Mavs had the same luxury last season. Erick Dampier was also a fairly successful defender, particularly when evaluated next to his second-string center contemporaries. Damp wasn’t producing worthy of his contract value on either end, but provided we analyze his strengths in terms of what the Mavs had rather than what the Mavs had to pay, Dampier was a quality rotation player.

In fact, Damp’s ’09-’10 season easily trumps Chandler’s in most statistical dimensions, and even compares relatively well to Chandler’s ’07-’08 year:

PERDRB%ORB%BLK%O-RtgD-RtgAPMWARP
Dampier ('09-'10)14.024.111.64.51181041.22.8
Chandler ('09-'10)12.521.012.03.9102102-8.11.7
Mecha Chandler ('07-'08)17.526.113.24.11221040.77.3

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, Basketball Prospectus, and Basketball Value.

Those who didn’t have the opportunity to watch much of the Bobcats last season may be a bit shocked by Chandler’s inferior statistical résumé, but it’s no fluke; he really was a lesser player in many regards last season. It may not be fair to evaluate Dampier and Chandler’s offensive ratings directly (after all, one of them played alongside Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, etc., while the other relied on Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace to produce the bulk of the offensive production), but the per-possession measures give a slight edge to Dampier in shot blocking and defensive rebounding, while the more complicated metrics (Player Efficiency Rating [PER], adjusted +/- [APM], Wins Above Replacement Player [WARP]) also indicate that Damp had a greater positive influence. Chandler’s adjusted +/- last season was surprisingly awful, particularly considering that APM is thought to be more defender-friendly than most metrics.

There is something to be said about variety. Though Dampier was an productive player for the Mavs last season, he’s similar to Brendan Haywood in a lot of ways. Chandler provides a different kind of defender (even if it is a similarly effective one) that Rick Carlisle can use to tech against specific opponents. It’s nice to be prepared to compensate for injuries, etc. by having players of similar skill sets in the starting lineup and on the bench, but overloading on yin isn’t always the sound move.

The obvious wild card is Chandler’s health. Tyson has averaged 48 regular season games over the last two seasons, primarily due to a smorgasbord of lower body injuries. Chandler is supposedly healthier now than he’s been in a long while, but it’s tough to pin down exactly how much his game was hindered by injury last season. His ailments have the potential to impact his production next year in either direction, and though you’re welcome to take Chandler’s word on his status if you’d like, I’ll table my decision until we see Tyson in action at the Team USA tryouts later this month. Until then, I think it’s only fair to expect the same Chandler we’ve seen over the last two seasons: A quality defender (with definite weaknesses) and a bit of an offensive liability.

Alexis Ajinca is a reasonably promising young center prospect, but he seems destined for bench-warming duty. Ajinca played well for the D-League’s Maine Red Claws last season, but he isn’t prepared to tread water defensively against NBA opponents. Don’t let his 3.1 blocks per game last year in the D fool you — Ajinca would be out-muscled and out-maneuvered by his competition in the big leagues. He still has a ways to go before both his body and technique are ready for consistent NBA burn.

However, Ajinca’s offensive game is a bit more advanced, even if he isn’t ready to step into a sizable role on that end, either. Alexis has real offensive potential. Most of his current moves in the post are still rather basic, but you take what you can get from a 22 year-old giant like Ajinca.


It would be naive to assume that a basketball trade is all about basketball. While the Mavs do like what Chandler can bring to the team as a sub for Haywood, this move has some fairly clear-cut financial motivations. Dallas was able to dump the salary of Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera, which cleared about $17.5 million over the next three seasons (Najera has two more years under contract and Carroll has three). Those were two of the contracts Mark Cuban was reportedly trying to pawn off in a potential trade for Al Jefferson, so it’s not exactly shocking to see him dispose of their salaries in this deal.

Here is the year-by-year breakdown of the Mavs’ outgoing salary:

'09-'10'10-'11'11-'12
Dampier13,078,000*----
Carroll4,300,0003,900,0003,500,000 (ETO)
Najera3,000,0002,750,000--

*Dampier’s 2009-2010 salary is entirely unguaranteed.

Also, because the Mavs did not waive Najera prior to June 30th, his salary for the next two seasons is completely guaranteed.

And their incoming salary:

'09-'10'10-'11'11-'12
Chandler12,600,000----
Ajinca1,467,8402,263,409 (TO)3,243,465 (QO)

Salary figures from Storytellers Contracts.

Plus, acquiring Chandler extends the Mavs’ ability to trade for talented players later in the year. While the off-season is the most convenient time to overhaul a roster, it also imbues far too many franchises with delusions of hope. Every team that struggled last year now has a blank slate, and with a few draft picks, a free agent signing or two, and internal development, all but the basement-dwellers seem poised to improve. It’s only during the regular season that the league’s harsh realities begin to surface: Regardless of which talent is where and what players are added or dropped from whatever rosters, only about half of the teams in the league are going to make the playoffs. The rest are doomed to another go-around as they continue to tinker in the hope of making the jump in the following season.

That should help the Mavs, who will no doubt attempt to use Chandler’s $12.6 million expiring contract (as well as Caron Butler’s $10.6 million expiring) as bait at the trade deadline. Right now, teams may be reluctant to settle for pure savings. However, when their roster’s shortcomings have been made painfully apparent over the course of 50 games or so, they may be more willing to deal. Financial flexibility is golden in the NBA, and while Dallas’ first token of financial flex didn’t bring in the star that they hoped it would, to have another shot using the same basic materials is nice.

The worst case scenario is that Chandler plays terribly, Dallas whiffs while attempting to trade him at the deadline, and Tyson becomes an unrestricted and unwanted free agent next summer. Both of those developments are rather unlikely, as the more probable outcome would have Chandler playing rather decently in a reserve role, followed by a move in February for a decent — but sub-superstar — talent. Still, anything can happen, and because the Mavs’ flexibility was maintained through February, this deal gets stamped with the dreaded “INCOMPLETE.” Embrace the uncertainty.

Dallas Mavericks 89, Charlotte Bobcats 84

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 2, 2010 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images.

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“I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.”
-William Allen White

This game was not beautiful. It wasn’t a sight to behold, aesthetically pleasing, or even “ehhh, kinda cute.” This was an ugly affair in which neither team could perform at any competent level offensively, and though the final margin was relatively tight, there wasn’t a photo finish of any kind. The defenses just mucked up the game in every regard, and any chance at having a good game was slashed with each forced turnover.

And it was absolutely glorious.

There are contests where both teams just can’t buy a bucket, and the Bobcats have been a part of plenty of them. But this was simply a triumph of defense, as the Bobcats held down the Mavs for nearly the entire game, and Dallas managed a defensive exhibition all its own. It wasn’t a clinic; neither team’s performance in this game will be flagged in the annals of the NBA, because despite how grand the defense was at times, it simply didn’t meet historical levels of greatness. But as far as ugly, early March games go, this one was surprisingly fulfilling.

Part of that is because while last night’s affair wasn’t necessarily a good game, it was certainly a good win. The Mavs only led for two minutes and 10 seconds prior to the fourth quarter, and they again overcame a double-digit lead in the second half to pull out the victory. Their own inability to stop Charlotte’s limited offense in the first half had a lot to do with that lead, but the Mavs holding the Bobcats to a 31-point second half was far more impressive than allowing them a 53-point first half was distressing. It’d be nice to see Dallas thoroughly dominate teams for 48 minutes, but asking that is pretty unrealistic. Instead, take pride in the fact that the Mavs refuse to cede significant ground to their opponents even during their worst stretches, and there’s absolutely no disputing their fourth-quarter effectiveness. This is a team that was built to endure, and while the first three quarters consist of some feeling out and ‘guess and check’ work, the final twelve minutes is where these Mavs shine.

The spotlight was on Jason Terry (20 points, 8-17 FG, four assists, two turnovers), who played an absolutely stellar fourth quarter. JET dropped 13 in the fourth quarter, and 11 of those points came over a four-minute span in which he personally outscored the Bobcats 11-4. Terry hasn’t been dropping in points in tremendous volume lately, but he’s been incredibly efficient; this was actually the first game that he’s shot less than 50% (and it’s 47.5%, which is damn near close enough for me) since the 0-for-10 debacle against Miami on February 20th. This is only the second time he’s registered 20 points over that same stretch (with the other being his 30-point night against L.A.), but JET’s shooting has been wonderfully efficient of late.

Dirk Nowitzki (27 points, 12-23 FG, 13 rebounds, two blocks, one turnover) is one of the most effective isolation weapons in the game, and most opponents’ best defense on him in late-game situations is to double aggressively (leaving them vulnerable to the kick-out) or pray that he misses. Charlotte is a beast of a team on the defensive end, but even with their group of talented, athletic defenders, the Bobcats had no means of halting Dirk’s high post game. Tyrus Thomas (16 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks) was matched up with Nowitzki in the fourth, and though he’s one of the more physically gifted defenders in the league much less in Charlotte, Dirk pump faked and spun his way to a few crucial buckets.

One of Josh Howard’s most publicized shortcomings was his inability to provide stable scoring behind Nowitzki and Terry. It’s something he struggled with throughout his injury-plagued campaigns, and though Howard would occasionally show flashes of what could have been (had he been healthy and comfortable in the rotation), he clearly wasn’t able to provide in that capacity this season. Caron Butler (22 points, 10-16 FG, three steals) on the other hand, is looking more and more like a perfect option as a third scorer. Caron’s averaged 20.5 points on 55.9% shooting since sitting out two games due to complications with a medication, along with 1.0 turnovers and 3.5 steals per night. Two games is an incredibly small sample size, but Butler really does look more comfortable in the Mavs’ sets and, just as importantly, his teammates are more aware of where and when Caron wants the ball.

Everything is still not perfect, as evidenced by a mere five-point win and only 89 points on the board. But the things the Mavs have improved since the trade — defense, balanced scoring, activity level — are more than enough reason to keep looking up.

Closing thoughts:

  • This win pushed the Mavs up to 2nd place in the Western Conference, which is even more important than the fact that it was Dallas’ eighth straight victory.
  • Stephen Jackson (20 points, seven rebounds, four assists, six turnovers) looked to be a big problem early in the game. Rick Carlisle clearly has tremendous respect for Gerald Wallace’s (11 points, eight rebounds, three blocks) game, and matched Crash with Shawn Marion. That left Caron Butler and Jason Kidd to defend the lanky, streak-shooting Jackson, who had 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting and three assists in the first quarter. Letting a shooter like Jax build confidence early in a game can be particularly dangerous. To some extent he was, as his 20 points are pretty significant in such a low-possession, low-scoring game. But those six turnovers were ruinous. Three of them came in just over three minutes in the second quarter, and by the time Jax had reeled in the TOs in the fourth, his shooting had gone cold. This is kinda what you get with Stephen Jackson.
  • Brendan Haywood (seven points, six rebounds) had an incredibly quiet night, but at least picked the right time to do so. Some scoring would’ve surely helped, but Haywood’s defense wouldn’t be especially helpful against the monster that is Theo Ratliff (four points, two rebounds). Theo is a force that you can only hope to contain.
  • I have no way of explaining what has happened to D.J. Augustin (two points, 0-3 FG, three turnovers). Last year he looked like a legitimate option at point guard moving forward. But this season? A mirage of his former self, accurate only when he’s shooting himself in the foot. I’ve always thought of Augustin as a scoring point guard first and foremost, and that’s where he found his biggest successes at Texas. The scoring’s stopped — as a matter of failure to execute, not a change in approach — and Augustin’s play makes Raymond Felton, even on a night where 4-of-14 from the field, rather indispensable.
  • 1-for-9 shooting for Jason Kidd. Blech. Seven assists to three turnovers. Meh.
  • Still no playing time for Von Wafer, and I don’t suspect we’ll see him play until the Mavs can create some fourth quarter separation. If you didn’t have another reason to cheer for a blowout, here you go. No DeShawn Stevenson or Rodrigue Beaubois either, which made for a rather short bench that did little to produce aside from JET. Eddie Najera and J.J. Barea combined for two points (1-4 FG), three rebounds, two assists, two turnovers, two steals, and two blocks in 25 minutes. Nothing to write a bullet point about.
  • The Bobcats really miss Nazr Mohammed.
  • As impressive as Caron Butler was, he wasn’t even on the floor for the critical moments in the fourth quarter. Rick Carlisle rolled with Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Haywood, leaving Butler’s big scoring night sitting on the bench in favor of Marion’s defense and rebounding. And it paid off. Marion may not have had incredibly visible box score contributions, but he still was a crucial part of Dallas’ fourth quarter surge.
  • This was the second straight game that the Mavs gave up the advantage at the free throw line (15 attempts to Charlotte’s 28) and the offensive boards (five to Charlotte’s eight) to the Bobcats. Not a good habit to get into, although in this case it wasn’t the difference between a win and a loss.